Humans are social animals (to quote Aristotle). We rely on each other and naturally look to develop close social relationships with other people.
By nature, workplaces are social environments; places where people join together to achieve goals that would be either impossible or too arduous for one person alone. But interactions between people don't always go smoothly. Communication can be a tricky business and we all have different personality traits, motivations, abilities, and ways of expressing ourselves, so we don't always see eye to eye.
Having some structure can help regulate and guide human relations. In the workplace, this typically involves providing a formal framework and social support system that enables people to thrive and work harmoniously together, whether they are coworkers at the same level, or employees and their manager or employer.
Employee relationship management (as it is often called) can take many forms, depending on the business, its nature, size, ambitions etc., but works best as a cohesive set of initiatives and activities aimed at creating an environment where people feel supported and empowered to do their best (both individually and as part of a team).
This helps boost employee engagement and job satisfaction, builds stronger company culture, and reinforces commitment to the business. Happier, more committed employees respond to change better and build stronger relationships with customers, which further drives business success.
Untended, the social dynamics of a workplace can be mired by needless confusion, disagreements, and hassles. Hardly the foundation for a thriving business.
So here are some key points to think about when it comes to formalising your approach to building better quality employee relationships.
Focus on individuals
The baseline for healthy workplace relationships starts with individual relationships.
We say this a lot: every employee is an individual and wants to be recognised and treated as such. In a busy workplace, it can be hard to fully get to know each person, so the best way to find out what inspires and motivates an employee, and what they need and expect from the business, is by talking to them directly (these things can vary quite a lot depending on the person’s age, their situation and aspirations, the type of job they do etc.).
Take the time for regular one-on-one conversations, whether they are brief, informal catch-ups or more formal performance evaluation meetings. Frequency is key to building rapport and trust. Additional quick surveys and polls can provide more detail.
Once you clearly understand employee needs, the business must do its best to meet them. Things like decent pay and benefits, good working conditions (including flexible work arrangements), responsibility and recognition, personal development, and equitable advancement opportunities will go a long way to making them feel valued and respected.
In return, the business can expect more enthusiastic, confident employees that get along with other people better and treat them better, whether they are coworkers or customers. They will also be more willing to pitch in, to look for solutions to problems, and be loyal to the company.
Build team culture
If every employee feels understood and supported, you've got the ingredients for a healthy organisation-wide culture of mutual respect and teamwork.
Look at ways to strengthen the bond among team members and create a healthy, genial workplace atmosphere. Team-building exercises and events can help co-workers get to know each other and be more effective at working together. You don't have to take everyone for regular pub lunches or paintball sessions, but getting people together to have some fun away from work is a good idea.
More formally, everyone in the organisation should clearly understand the company's policies, goals, and mission. This not only determines the way employees should act, it helps create a uniform vision and encourages employees to work towards common objectives.
Obviously, the more team members are able to provide input into the culture and vision, the more invested they will be helping build them. Encourage employees to share ideas and work on ways to engage staff in conversation at a group level. Systems and infrastructure that capture suggestions and prompt ideas will make it much easier to deliver on them.
Don't overlook your ways of working; they should be defined by personal and team values, along with wider goals and responsibilities. Stay open to new ideas and don't be afraid to change processes or methods that aren't working. Empower the people actually doing the work to resolve problems as they are the ones who are best placed to see solutions.
Just remember, a company's culture exists whether it is consciously built or not. Don't leave it to chance. A dynamic work culture based on respect, cooperation, and resourcefulness will help build long-term success and sustainability.
Promote open dialogue
Open, honest communication is critical to establishing and maintaining strong employee relationships. Communication builds connection and understanding, linking people together.
Open communication involves everyone in the business. It starts with management communicating regularly and honestly with employees about the issues that impact their work, whether they are personal or business-wide matters.
Listening is as important as talking. Having an open-door policy sets an example of good faith and receptiveness, and staff should be able to raise concerns and questions, and feel they will be taken seriously.
Employees should also be encouraged to discuss work issues at a team level, and be supported to resolve problems or misunderstandings.
Using a number of different channels, both personal and formal – e.g. team meetings, one-on-one talks, employee newsletters or company intranet site etc. – gives people more opportunities to express themselves. Some people may be more comfortable communicating in writing rather than verbally.
Ensure there is zero toleration of abusive or threatening speech and behaviour. No one functions well in an environment where they feel intimidated. Respect and understanding are vital.
Manage and resolve conflict
Inevitably, there are going to be times when people clash or disagree, so managing and resolving interpersonal problems is a big part of creating a healthy workplace culture.
There are legal responsibilities to uphold when dealing with conflict and adhering to the law will minimise any potential disruption to the business, lessen stress, and help keep you safe from personal grievance cases.
By law, each employment agreement has to contain a simple, plain-language explanation of how to resolve employment relationship problems. Processes for raising, investigating, and resolving conflict should also be part of company policy and everyone in the business should know what steps to follow if there is an issue.
All team members have a duty to take problems seriously and follow fair process. Discrimination, bullying, and harassment must be investigated and the employer must support the affected person.
Misconduct must be investigated fairly and any disciplinary process must be fair and reasonable.
Everyone should be proactive. Identifying and addressing things early is always better than letting them smoulder and grow. A workplace culture where everyone shares responsibility for preventing and resolving misunderstandings or mistakes will help reduce problems in the long-run and build stronger relationships.
Measure and monitor results
Effective employee relationship management requires ongoing attention and tracking.
Ideally, this starts at the beginning of the employment journey so anyone joining the business is clear about what is expected of them and what they expect in return. Setting some ground rules will make your relationship a lot stronger and easier to manage.
Part of the foundation-laying from a company perspective is defining what employee relationship management means, what you expect to achieve and how. From there you can work on the best ways to gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.
Aside from productivity and staff output, some broad measures might be things like rates of employee engagement and turnover, how easy it is to attract new people, how often relationship issues are raised or disciplinary procedures required, and their results.
Monitoring will probably entail a mix of formal assessments, like staff meetings and surveys, and more informal observation from managers and employees. Share the results with employees and check that any feedback is understood.
Again, the culture should be one of trust, transparency, and willingness to learn. If there is evidence of discontent, sub-par communication, or poor employee interactions, work collectively to find ways to improve.
Look at guidance and training
Of course, building and managing relationships doesn't always come naturally to everyone, so people may need support and training.
Managers and executives may benefit from leadership training that focuses on establishing and nurturing employee relations, motivating staff, and how to respond to any issues. Employees may need coaching to develop effective communication skills (basic literacy and numeracy training may also be beneficial in some workplaces).
As well as imparting useful skills, giving people opportunities to learn and improve is a clear indication that the business takes employee relations seriously.
Lead by example
Ultimately, you can have all the plans and process you like, but it will be largely meaningless if managers and senior leaders don't embody the values.
Communication is done by action just as much as words. Having effective leaders that are approachable and supportive, who communicate clearly and deal with issues effectively and compassionately will build respect and trust, and set an example that staff will want to emulate.